I was half right.
Paycheck is a potentially great sci-fi thriller that falls flat because of the people involved. It's sad too, because it had potential. Paul Giamatti's in it and he's good, he brings a certain level of fun and entertainment to every scene he's in, as he always seems to. Uma Thurman is...Uma Thurman. Neither a detriment nor much of an asset. Aaron Eckhart, whom fakingsincerity would gleefully fuck, is decent as the heavy, and his henchman is fine.
The problem is with Affleck. Affleck and Woo.
Now I am not the Affleck hater that many of the young hip set seem to be. He's done some crap, but I thought he was fine in Daredevil, decent in Changing Lanes, and he made fun of himself in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The thing about Affleck is he always comes off as a little smug, and frequently a little dim. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just a thing. It's dead wrong for this movie though. He is playing a brilliant desperate engineer on the run from a violent conspiracy. During his calm scenes he's fine, but when the action hits he just can't seem to kick it into the next gear. He doesn't look frightened and desperate. He doesn't look sharp and confident (Which can work in that kind of situation, see Die Hard ) He has a look, and especially body language, that says "Oh well, this kinda sucks, but I'll muddle through. Craft Service right after I hit this guy with my big stick." You don't want your hero to muddle through the action sequences.
Speaking of muddling through the action sequences, it seems like Woo has lost his touch. Maybe it's the language barrier, or maybe it's the budget, or maybe it's age, but the visual ballet he managed in his Hong Kong stuff just isn't translating. In fact the action sequences are the least interesting parts of the film. They're not just sort of stock action, they're dull and at times too hastily cut. Now I know he's working with Affleck who is not the most physical of stars, but it's possible to be tense and exciting without requiring your actor to do flips or wire-fu. One sequence has Affleck running away from a train that seems to be going literally 12 miles per hour. Now that might be fast enough to run a person down, but it never comes close enough that you think he's in danger, and even still being run down at 12 miles an hour is not so much tragic as hilarious. "Shoulda eaten fewer twinkies, huh?"
It's not that the special effects are bad, it's that they're used in the wrong places. In some ways that's more damning. To make a car chase in a junkyard exciting it has to be new, gritty, and tense. In Paycheck It's not and you don't even expect it to be. Is it competent and professional? Yes. Does that matter? Not really.
There are other problems too. The Philip K. Dick story, which was probably lean and exciting, has been padded by hackey screenwriting. At one point Affleck sits in a train station with Giamatti and explains to him the plot of the movie so far, for stupid viewers who weren't paying attention or are watching stoned. That may be a commercial thing to do, in case people come in late or flip on the TV mid-movie, but it's terrible film making. Thank you for kicking suspension of disbelief in the balls. Thanks a lot. Later they feel compelled to explain how the big fancy machine works, and it's such obvious bullshit that you're like "Why did you explain that? We don't need to know how it works, just that it works." It's an eye-rolling scene and totally extraneous to the action of the film.
In opposition to Paycheck is this Clash song I'm listening to over and over. Its premise isn't nearly as good, but it gets all the small things right. The bridge lyrics, "Nebutol numbs it all but I prefer Alcohol" is not only iconoclast's favorite lyric of all time, it also gives an edge to the previous lyrics that weren't there. This is why obsessive editing and careful arrangement is so essential in artistic endeavors. It's like chaos theory, a single well-placed detail can bring a whole song together, and a bad one can take a movie apart.
On the Baldwin rating scale Paycheck is a